Bhutan has become poorer by five White-Bellied Herons this year. The annual WBH survey counted only 22 herons, which is the lowest in the past five years.

The decrease in The population of the endangered species was mainly observed in the upper Punatsangchhu basin—Phochhu, Mochhu, Adha, and Harachhu—the oldest and previously popular habitats in the country. What is worrying is that for the first time in 19 years there were no birds found in these otherwise rich and safe habitats . Phochhu and Mochhu areas once hosted the highest known population in the country.

The magnificent big bird  is shy and prefers undisturbed freshwater river systems. Its presence indicates a healthy ecosystem. Things are not going right in the Punatsangchhu basin.

Studies have attributed the decrease in WBH population to habitat loss and damage from infrastructure development, agriculture expansion, hydropower projects, extractive industries, climate change, and increasing pressure on habitats. Experts say the already endangered bird is in crisis with increased mortality and declining breeding success.

There is no denying that there were indiscriminate events in those valleys, issues that conservationists have been raising for a long time now. But they fell on deaf ears. We are only witnessing the consequences.

Farm road construction along rivers and human activities have to be properly managed in the sensitive areas near the habitats.

The National Environment Strategy emphasises the conservation of the country’s biodiversity.

National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan 2014 sets out  targets for public awareness of biodiversity values, integration into development planning, introduction of positive incentives, sustainable production and consumption, and habitat mapping and trend monitoring, among others.

There is plenty of support in legislation and strong policies. But what is lacking is  support of the communities and ownership of the cause. The critically endangered bird was first spotted by His Majesty the Fourth King in 1975. Not much happened until Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) was commanded to initiate conservation work.

So far its two captive breeding exercises have been successful but they were on a smaller scale.

To sustain WBH conservation efforts for the next 20 years, RSPN needs USD 150,000 annually. The NGO’s estimates show that this can only be possible with a White-bellied Heron endowment fund of USD 3 million at 5 percent annual investment interest. RSPN still requires to raise USD 1.35 million to achieve the target.

Allocating such a huge budget for the WBH’s conservation is impossible given the constraints and competing priorities. The least we can do is to keep away from its habitats. Demarcating the areas and restricting activities  in those places could be a solution. Not long from now, the communities can manage the areas and reap huge benefits in terms of controlled bird watching for tourists and locals alike.

But if we delay any more, there may not be any left to save.